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Five Key Stress Resilience Skills & How To Train Them With Biofeedback

In my earlier articles in this series I make the case for therapists working with developmental goals, which frame the work of therapy in terms of building (learning, training) specific skills and resources. My particular interest is in what I call mind-body skills, which are essentially skills in managing the mind-body connection: creating physiological conditions that support optimal states of mind and performance. In my Stress Resilience Blueprint I set out five core mind-body skills which are the foundation of resilience, or the ability to recover quickly and easily from stress and upsets. Adopting these as developmental goals means essentially that you teach your clients how to guide their physiology towards states that support well-being and optimal performance.

In this article we'll explore the five key mind-body skills in more depth, and consider how you can train and coach them using biofeedback.

Here's the list again:

  • Self-awareness
  • Attention – flexibility & stability of focus
  • Letting go (1) – physical
  • Letting go (2) – mental
  • Accessing & sustaining positive emotion

Self-awareness

This is self-awareness in a particular sense: it's awareness of:

  • first, body responses and processes, including feelings, desires and urges to act,
  • second, thoughts and thinking patterns,
  • and then crucially how these two relate to each other – awareness of how the mind-body connection plays out in practice, or how the body responds to thinking, and how feelings in the body condition thoughts.

Self-awareness is a prerequisite for choice and control. If thoughts and feelings are operating outside of awareness, then they control you. If you want to control them, the first thing is to open up a window of awareness that is a chance to pause and consider before choosing, deciding and acting.

Self-awareness is the foundation of all other resilience and emotional intelligence skills.

Biofeedback is an ideal tool for training and developing self-awareness in this mind-body sense. For some clients, the body is something of a "blind-spot", and therefore hard to become more aware of without objective help.

Any biofeedback parameter can help train self-awareness but I would say EMG (muscle tension) and Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) are particularly helpful. Since I discuss EMG in other articles I'll focus on GSR here. GSR is what is used in the well-know "lie detector" test. It is very sensitive to subtle emotional arousal. It's not great as a lie detector because you can become emotionally aroused even when you're telling the truth! But it is very useful for demonstrating to clients the reality of the mind-body connection and how pervasive it is.

GSR works by measuring electrical conductance, which is highly variable in the hands due to (subtle, emotion-related) sweating. This sweating is triggered by the sympathetic nervous system and thus is an aspect of fight-or-flight. Even passing thoughts can invoke it.

GSR is very largely involuntary, and can only be consciously influenced indirectly. Trying to suppress GSR changes pretty invariably lead to bigger changes - which means it's an ideal way to demonstrate to clients the nature of the quicksand trap. Sometimes this insight is key for clients, as I show in this stress case study.

Attention

A lot can be said about attention and focus, which are vital to mental performance but also to emotional self-regulation (which is not always obvious to clients). I'm going to reserve discussion of attention for a separate article.

Letting Go Part 1: Physical

There are two parts to letting go, and the first is letting go in a physical or bodily sense. In the first place that can mean letting go of muscles and tension, but I mean it more broadly than that – calming the body, reducing restlessness and agitation and physiological arousal.

In terms of the Human Performance Curve model of stress that I set out in an earlier article, I'm talking about the faculty of moving to the left – just what you need if you're caught in the “quicksand trap”, when you're to the right of the peak and heading down the slope.

In terms of biofeedback, of course EMG, a measure of muscle tension, is the ideal parameter for teaching letting go.

Letting Go Part 2: Mental

The second aspect of letting go means in a mental sense. That means separating yourself, to a degree at least, from your own thinking, and the narratives playing in your head – creating mental space, so that you differentiate your thoughts, beliefs and stories about the world, from the world in itself. And of course your beliefs and stories are intimately bound up with emotions. So creating space around thinking tends to take the heat out of emotions – that's it's value.

In CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) the emphasis is on changing negative or unhelpful beliefs, but in other approaches you don't need to go so far. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT, it's enough to create this space in the way I'm describing here. In ACT the process is known as cognitive defusion.

Cognitive defusion is an aspect of acceptance, which essentially means letting go of internal struggle or resistance. This is acceptance in a positive sense, not just resignation – so for example forgiveness is a kind of acceptance.

Here's a key point: cognitive defusion is made significantly easier when combined with physical letting go, especially letting go of muscle tension. And thus again EMG is an ideal biofeedback parameter for training acceptance.

As a practitioner I often see my clients' muscle tension drop as a result of some emotional acceptance that comes up as part of the conversation. When I see it I point it out, which can give clients a useful insight into mind-body dynamics.

Accessing & Sustaining Positivity

In my experience of working with clients, many are primarily motivated to get rid of negative emotions. As practitioners we know this is not necessarily the best strategy, and ultimately not always possible anyway: there's always a danger of creating mental quicksand.

Accessing positivity is a relatively distinct skill, (i.e. distinct from letting go of negative emotions). Positivity is not simply the absence of negative emotion, or even the opposite. It too can be trained and developed like the other skills in this list. Positive psychology has developed some great research-proven tools and techniques.

HRV or heart coherence biofeedback is a useful parameter for working with positive emotion. The people at the Heartmath Institute, who deserve much credit for popularizing HRV biofeedback, emphasise positivity in their methods.

Mind-Body Skills Are Foundational

Mind-body skills form a foundation for higher-level resources. I'd like to briefly give one example: will-power. What I mean is, when you draw on your will-power you are implicitly drawing on the lower level mind-body skills.

Will-power includes resisting impulses to act on short-term desires that conflict with your higher-level goals (e.g. eating a cake when you want to lose weight). This desire is an embodied process, and you need to be aware of it in both mind and body (self-awareness). You need to stop fighting or resisting the feelings (letting-go) and instead focus on your wider goals (attention) and your motivation for achieving them (which means accessing positivity).

Stanford psychologist Dr Kelly McGonigal, in her book "Maximum Willpower" (which I highly recommend to practitioners and clients alike) describes Heart Rate Variability (HRV) as the best objective measure available of will-power. She's talking about HRV as an assessment parameter, but HRV is also a powerful biofeedback parameter.

Can HRV biofeedback training strengthen will-power? I think there's certainly a case for suggesting there is.

In conclusion, I hope I've communicated a sense of how these five core skills are foundational in daily life, and can be important developmental goals in your client work.

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